Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Demographic Coop up

As we approach the future, new demographic criteria are needed. The world is dividing largely into countries where population growth is slow or nonexistent and where living conditions are improving and those where population growth is rapid and living conditions are deteriorating or in imminent danger of doing so. Pakistan is in second group in its fifth decade of rapid population growth. Not only has it failed to complete the demographic transition, but the deteriorating relationship between people and ecological support systems is lowering living standards.

Pakistan’s population now just around 150 million is projected to reach 330 million before it stops growing toward the middle of this century. It is more than double before stabilizing. This means combination of soil erosion and ill-conceived agricultural policies will lead to poverty increase. Population projections in Pakistan where life support systems are already trifling can only be described as projections of disaster.

The wide variations in projected population growth suggest that a demographically divided world is likely to become more deeply divided along economic lines as well. Unless this relationship between rapidly multiplying populations and their life-support systems can be stabilized, development policies, however imaginative, are likely to fail.

Throughout most of human history, the general increase in human numbers was accompanied by a slow expansion of the cropland area. As populations grew, land pressures built, the landless migrated to big cities. This is the cause of urbanization in Karachi, Lahore and other big cities. The cropland area might have grown but not nearly as fast as population. Thus the result is growing rural landlessness—lack of access to land either through ownership or tenancy. Though fueled by population growth, rural landlessness is exacerbated by the concentration of land ownership.

The growth in landlessness can be curbed or even reversed by initiating land reform. To check the growth in landlessness is to slow population growth through effective family planning. Land reform can reduce landlessness in the short run, but in the long run only population stabilization will work.

Numerous linkages exist between population growth and conflict, both within and among societies. Conflict arises when growing populations compete for a static or shrinking resource base. Inequitable distribution of resources—whether of income, land or water—complicates the relationship. Increased competition and conflict fray the social fabric that helps maintain social harmony.

For Pakistan, the global economic slowdown has come just as record numbers of young people are entering the job market. The specter of growing numbers of restless unemployed youngsters in the street does not convey an image of social tranquility. Unemployed youths roaming the streets of Pakistan where half the population under 18 years of age, with no prospect of job formation, hungry, and looking to irregular leaders to lead them in new and as yet unpredictable movements—there is little question that even more political explosions are on the immediate horizon.

In Pakistan the demographic trap is becoming the grim alternative to completing the demographic transition. The high fertility, low mortality stage cannot continue for long. By now Pakistan should have put together a combination of economic policies and family planning programs that reduce birth rates and sustain gains in living standards. If it failed further, continuing rapid population growth eventually overwhelm natural support systems, and environmental deterioration starts to reduce per capita food production and income.

Pakistan perhaps does not know when it is crossing the various biological thresholds that eventually lead to economic decline. One of the first economic indications that pressure on the land is becoming excessive is declining grain production per person. In earlier agricultural societies, population increases were simply matched by those in cultivated area. Grain output per person was stable. When population growth is rapid and there is no new land to plow, expanding the use of modern inputs fast enough to offset the effects of land degradation and to raise land productivity in tandem with population growth is not easy. It comes as no surprise that per capita grain production is declining.

When this happens it is a matter of time until the government translates into a decline in per capita income, and into the need for food imports. Rising food imports contribute to growing external debt. If external debt rises fast enough, it will eventually cross a debt-servicing threshold, beyond which Pakistan can no longer pay all the interest. At this point lenders insist that the unpaid interest be added to the principal, expanding the debt further.

The demographic trap is not easily recognized because it involves the interaction of population, environmental, and economic trends, which are monitored by various ministries and departments. And managers frequently fail to distinguish between triggering events and underlying instability in the population-environment relationship.

Lacking a ground in ecology and an understanding of carrying capacity, all too many economic planners and population policymakers have failed to distinguish between the need to slow population growth and the need to halt it. If societal demands are far below the sustainable yield of natural systems, then slowing population growth is sufficient. But when they have passed these thresholds, the failure to halt population growth leads to deterioration of support systems.

Other countries are moving into uncharted territory in the population-environment-resources relationship. Pakistan cannot remain much longer in the middle stage of the demographic transition. Either it must forge ahead with all the energies at its disposal, perhaps even on an emergency basis, to slow and halt population growth, or it will slide into the demographic trap. At present the government is faced with the monumental task of trying to reduce birth rates as living conditions deteriorate a challenge that may require some new approaches. If it failed, economic deterioration could eventually lead to social disintegration of the sort that undermined earlier civilizations when population demands became unsustainable. (